Canadian Backpacking Expedition
July 1-9, 2005
By Mary Powell
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There were only three participants for this trip which was expected to be difficult due to the remote location and the midsummer heat. Our plan was to meet for dinner at the Voyageur Inn, drive north to spot vehicles at possible end points for the trip and, if it wasn't too late, perhaps drive to the trailhead. I arrived at the Voyageur in the late afternoon and so had time for a walk on the beach and to relax in the lawn chairs in front of the motel.
As the sun dipped toward the lake, Chris Ozminski joined me and we chatted awhile, waiting for Michael who would be leading the trip--a trip which was largely the result of research Chris had done.
Chris showed me his latest piece of equipment for remote bush trips. It was a modified machete that he called "the expedition tool". It had a blade for clearing obstructions and splitting wood, a prying tip and a saw blade opposite the knife blade. He put some finishing touches on the saw as we talked.
While I could clearly see the utility of the instrument, I was very glad that I did not have to carry it as it weighed several pounds and from my belt would have hung at least to my knee...
The clock crept past the time we'd agreed upon for dinner and still Michael had not arrived. We decided to go on into the restaurant. The food was great as usual and as we were finishing, Michael came in. Always looking to the next trip or the one after that, he'd stopped on the way up to make some inquiries about a proposed winter expedition.
He ordered, we chatted and when he finished eating we drove up to Gargantua. By the time we reached the end of the long gravel road that leads to the bay, it was dark and raining intermittently. We decided that we would spend the night there and go on to the trailhead in the morning. We walked down to the cobble rock beach to get a breath of fresh air and then returned to our cars to sleep. I quickly dozed off to the sound of the rain on the roof of the Neon.
I awoke when it was barely light due to an acute need for a position change: the back seat of a Neon is a little short even for me. Rain still pattered on the roof. Achieving relative comfort by stretching my legs over the front seat, I dozed off again. When I opened my eyes again the rain had slowed to drizzle and I decided it was time for coffee.
I grabbed my DEET, food bag, water bottle, stove, and pad and set up to cook a few feet from the car under the small roof of the "You are here" sign. As my water came to a boil, Chris and Michael joined me. Over breakfast in the intermittent drizzle we watched a party of kayakers preparing to leave and a number of campers returning to their cars for raingear.
After the meal we spotted Chris's truck along the road and then drove to the park headquarters where Michael sought the answers to some questions about old campsites and trails that showed on the map but were not necessarily still in existence. The ranger was helpful on some items and was interested in hearing what we found on our trip as very few people venture into that part of the park.
Leaving the headquarters we drove north to Old Woman Bay where we stopped briefly to gaze out toward one of our objectives, Grindstone Point. We then backtracked a bit and, after a little searching, located the remnants of the portage trail to Alpine Lake. It was still raining intermittently so we donned our raingear and put on pack covers.
The packs were heavy with 10 days of food and the rain gear was like a sauna as the day was fairly warm. Chris led us down the trail which had some fallen trees obstructing it, but was not too difficult to discern. I think 3 of it's 3.5 klicks wound through swamp though, and there were a number of over-the-boots muddy sections.
On reaching Alpine Lake we had lunch at the first campsite we came to and there reviewed plans for the trip. In the afternoon we hiked around the lake to another site. Leaving our packs, we hiked the portage trail over to Till Lake to see if it was a more desirable camping spot. We considered checking out a possible waterfall, but the valley in which the little stream ran was choked with brush.
We returned to the second site on Alpine Lake and set up camp. The weather was improving: the rain had stopped, there were only scattered clouds and the temperature was dropping. Chris went for a swim and fished along the shore for awhile. By dinner time he had landed a 13 1/2 inch brook trout and a 16 1/2 inch lake trout. That's more fish than three people can comfortably eat in one meal!
I awoke before sunrise though the sky was brilliantly lit in the east below a bank of dark clouds. I fell back asleep waiting for just the right moment to take a sunrise picture... When I woke up again Chris was up and had his water heating for breakfast. The bank of cloud that I'd seen earlier had spread 'til the sky was a uniform gray. It was pleasantly cool. We had breakfast, packed and followed the trail down to Till Lake again. We crossed the creek at the lake's inlet and edged along the shore of the lake to the outlet, following that stream toward Lake Superior.
We were looking forward to seeing Till Creek falls, the highest waterfall in the park. The brush was thick but we happened onto some moose trails that helped a little. When we reached the falls it was spectacular: many foamy white rivulets cascading over black rock, a drop of about 90 feet. Below the falls the creek runs through narrow canyons of bedrock to Lake Superior. Ferns and wildflowers cling to the walls: a good place for fishing and photography. At the mouth of the creek is a campsite intended primarily for kayakers.
We found it unoccupied and settled in. An enjoyable afternoon was spent exploring the Till Creek canyon and taking pictures. The view of the big lake from the rocky beach was beautiful. Gulls and loons floated on the waves there and fished at the mouth of the stream. The overcast had disappeared and the afternoon was sunny and warm. Chris and I got into the chilly water just long enough to feel refreshed. Chris then attached his hand line to a long stick that he selected and succeeded in catching three small brook trout. We also explored the adjacent cove which contained a picturesque cobble rock beach and afforded a view of Grindstone Point.
Though several banks of clouds hurried over in the night, the day dawned clear and sunny. After breakfast we decided to try working our way up the coast. We got off to a good start but soon were clinging to steep rock faces and wading in the waves. We climbed over a particularly precipitous headland and decided that traveling inland would be more productive--but first we needed to fill our water bottles. We followed the next draw toward the lake and came out on an outcrop that dropped thirty feet or more to the water.
Dropping our packs, Chris and I walked out the edge of a narrow vertical plate of rock and climbed down its fractured end to the water. Michael, however said, "I don't climb on anything that you can fall off of in three compass directions." He pulled a rope from his pack and climbed down one of the steep walls. Looking back at the cliff from the water's edge there was a huge cleft in the red rock--a narrow slot going inland several hundred feet. Huge boulders were wedged in it high above our heads. To the left of this was a huge dark rock face patterned with bright orange lichens.
After filling our bottles we climbed back into the woods to circle inland around a couple of high knobs of rock that projected into the lake. The bush was incredibly thick and by lunch we'd traveled barely a klick. We continued bushwhacking after lunch taking frequent breaks from the struggle and wondering if it would be possible to cover the remaining two klicks to Bushy Bay by nightfall. Our doubts increased as we climbed about 150 feet of almost vertical escarpment where the topo showed contours reasonably spread out.
However, working our way around a wetland at the outlet of a small lake, we came upon a moose trail that saved the day. It wound through the thick brush and descended the steep slope on the far side of the headland in a series of switchbacks. It eventually led us back to the big lake near an established campsite for kayakers in a tiny cove. Our view of the lake was very nice. Chris proceeded to hike up the beach but Michael and I watched the ducks and loons and relaxed. We set up camp on the beach and clouds built through the evening. I awoke several times in the night to the sound of rain on my tarp.
It was still overcast at dawn but by the time we'd had breakfast it was only partly cloudy and rapidly warming. Since our campsite was in a cove with the beach ending at rocky cliffs in both directions, we began the day by following the moose trail back up to the plateau south of our camp. Once on the plateau we turned westward toward Grindstone point. A flock of seven or eight grouse made a hasty exit at our approach. Moose sign abounded on the plateau. There were many interlaced trails, droppings and heavily browsed underbrush. We found one area that had been trampled to mud, almost certainly a winter yard.
As we explored, Chris found two moose sheds. We continued west, finding a dry creek bed and eventually the edge of the plateau. We spread out searching for more sheds and each of us found our own way down to the beach. It was cobble rock and stretched away in the distance to Grindstone Point. Before starting toward the point we explored the other end of the beach, finding a nascent sea cave and a colony of butterwort--striking violet blue flowers with lime green leaves. The plant is interesting in that it is carnivorous like the better known venus flytrap.
Our plan was to explore the shore around Grindstone Point and camp near the cliffs of Cape Chaillon. Hiking on cobble rock is tedious as it is necessary to continuously watch your footing. We would walk a way then scan the beach to enjoy the view before continuing. About a mile from the point we began seeing artifacts that appeared to be from a shipwreck. There were pieces of plating, beams, bolts, planks, pipes and boiler parts. By the time we reached the point we felt like we'd seen the whole ship a piece at a time. After we rounded the point, the wreckage tapered off.
Chris did a bit of research after the trip and found that the wreckage was from an iron framed wooden freighter named the Acadia, that was driven ashore and broken up by a gale on November 5, 1896. The ship was carrying grain at the time of the accident and the crew all made it ashore. We explored a wilderness cave nearby; an artifact inside it indicated they mave have taken shelter in it. It took them over a week to make it to the Soo. That was not hard to imagine considering the ruggedness of the terrain we were dealing with...
On the far side of the point we looked for an old campsite rumored to be there, but we found no sign of it. We reached an area of cliffs in the early afternoon and camped on an ancient cobble rock beach 15 feet above the lake. There was evidence that kayakers, possibly wind-bound, had camped there too, but the artifacts were not recent. Through the afternoon, fog came and went; the cliffs appeared and disappeared.
Chris decided to climb them so that he could say that he had seen the top, heading for a lake the topos showed near the edge of the cliff. I walked slowly down to the end of the beach getting some pictures of massive fallen boulders and enjoying the scenery veiled by the fog. There were a number of Pukaskwa pits scattered along my route and I thought about the hunter-gatherers who may have used them: by our standards, what a harsh life they must have lived...
Around dinner time a major bank of fog rolled in making it damp and chilly. Chris returned safely from his exploration. We ate and read, giving up any hope of seeing a sunset. A couple hours later, however, the curtain of fog magically withdrew and the final oranges and purples of the evening sky were beautiful.
A partly cloudy sky at dawn became mostly clear as the day progressed. It was surprisingly cool with a high of perhaps 70. It was Chris's day to be point person and he took us into the woods to look for more moose yards, trails and sheds on the way to Gravel Lake. We picked up a trail almost immediately and climbed up several contours. We began to see places where moose had bedded down, mud holes and obviously browsed areas. At a large mud hole Chris found another shed. As we were searching for more of these, we found instead a spruce grouse nest that had been raided by some predator: eggs and shells were strewn over a wide area.
Though there were many mud holes, we found no more sheds and so we headed east toward Gravel Lake. As we traveled, the bush got thicker and we were lucky to have the moose trail to follow. After a while we began to see old branches and brush that had been cut--aerial spoor as Michael would say... The moose trail blended into an old maintenance trail that led to a campsite on Gravel Lake that hadn't seen much use, to say the least.
The tent pads had grown up in bracken. The ashes in the fire pit had a plush covering of moss. A roughly constructed table had been smashed by a falling limb. Still, the site offered more open space than the surrounding bush so we settled in. Chris fished for quite a while without catching anything. Michael tried without success too. We wished for a canoe as the lake was very pretty.
Morning brought another beautiful cloudless day. After breakfast we began to work our way around the lake toward its outlet. We hadn't gone far when our wish for a canoe was granted. Chris was poking around in the brush and found a couple of aged plastic containers. Nearby Michael found a canoe overgrown with brush. Turning it over, he found paddles stashed underneath. It was obvious that they had lain there more than a few years. Though the canoe was pretty beat up, it looked like it would float. We pulled it down to the lake and, sure enough, it was water-tight. The boat proved to be an irresistible temptation...
After trying several ways of loading our packs we found an arrangement that kept the weight low enough to be fairy stable and left enough room for all three of us to sit. We climbed in with Chris in the bow, Michael in the stern and me in the middle between the packs. Needless to say, we were a bit top heavy and there was less than two inches of freeboard. We decided to try canoeing to the far end of the lake anyway. We stayed close to the shore in case of a mishap, but the trip went very well, covering the distance in considerably less time than bushwhacking would have taken.
We landed at an old portage trail and checked out the remnants of an old road that showed on the topo but wasn't very evident in the terrain. Then, after stowing the canoe and having a snack, we followed what was left of the portage trail to Chaillon Lake. There we found a beautiful campsite that, like the canoe, didn't appear to have been used in many years. Scouting around we found numerous items left from its heyday: cans, fishing gear, grills, wooden tent pegs etc. It took about an hour to examine them all. Then it was time for lunch.
After eating we made our way to the lake's outlet which was the origin of the Red Rock River. We began to make our way downstream. As it was very warm, we walked in the river itself, returning to the banks to get around deep holes and log jams. There were some nice areas of eroded rock and pretty little waterfalls. Around 4PM we came upon a beautiful little point and decided to camp there. It was covered with cedars that were open underneath. There were ponds both above and below the point and a small rapid where the river ran from one to the other.
I was hot and sweaty and my clothes had collected a lot of pine needles on the bushwhack so a swim was a priority. I went down to the lower pool and pulled of my hiking pants and boots and rinsed the mud out of them. Then I swam past some lily pads to a fallen spruce and hung on one of its branches looking into the water which was as clear as glass. There were small fish swimming in the shallows and a larger one hanging out at the base of my spruce. The bottom of the pond was gravel, strewn with rocks of various sizes. Cooled down and feeling refreshed, I swam back to shore, put on dry clothes and hung up the wet ones.
Chris began fishing almost immediately and kept at it most of the evening. He had a 12 inch rainbow on the hook at one point but it managed to get away as he was trying to land it. He caught a smaller one and had it as an hors d'oeuvre though. Michael was not motivated to fish until after dinner when he spotted a 20 inch rainbow feeding along the shore. Fishing with a popper, he soon caught something that was big enough to snap the line and take the lure. A bit later he was able to reel in a 15 inch rainbow. Fishing continued 'til darkness fell....
Our campsite on the point was even more beautiful in the morning. The trees were reflected in the still water and mist hung over the ponds. It was chilly though, you could see your breath. After breakfast we started for Red Rock beach. We struggled a couple hundred meters through the woods then waded into the river and spent the rest of the day working our way downstream, clambering through the rushing water on slippery rocks. The terrain changed gradually--we saw higher banks and more bedrock.
There were a couple of huge stretches of sandy bank and at one of these there was an area where the sand was falling continually just like a waterfall. Toward the mouth of the river the bottom was composed more of smaller rocks and gravel instead of the larger stones that were so slippery to negotiate. This was a relief, as six hours is a long time to be wading. Chris went for a swim in one of the deeper pools and the guys did a side trip up Villian Creek. There they found a small falls dropping over a wall of bedrock.
At the mouth of the Red Rock River is the rock it was named after: a giant slab of exposed red bedrock. All the fallen trees that have been washed from the canyon by the spring torrents are sacked against this rock or lie on the beach beside it. There is a truly amazing amount of wood. There are some campsites for kayakers there and, after looking them over, we decided to camp at the edge of the beach for the view. We set up our tarps using driftwood for support and as deadmen.
The honeysuckle bushes behind us were covered with bees and also attracted hummingbirds. There was a steady soft hum from that direction. We rinsed out our socks and boots and laid them to dry in the sun. We swam and basked in the sun ourselves.
After dinner Chris and I walked down to the big red rock to explore. The inland side is a precipitous cliff, but the lake side slants down into the water. Chris swam around to the front so that he could climb up for the view. Not wanting to get wet again I stayed at the bottom and snapped a picture of him at the top, looking like he'd conquered a mountain. Back in camp we watched the sunset which seemed to last forever. At the end a sliver of moon hung in the orange afterglow. Then the sky darkened and the stars came out. Spectacular!
Another cloudless day with moderate temperatures. After breaking camp we walked down the beach and spent a bit of time calculating an azimuth that would take us up a draw that led inland. When we left the beach it took us most of the morning to make it up to the saddle through the thick brush. On the way up we spotted an exposed edge on the cliff above us and decided to climb up and have lunch out there. On our way to that ledge, we spotted a better one high above us and changed our destination. We crossed a pile of boulders and zigzagged up crevices in the rocky outcrop. As we approached the top we found that the blueberries up there in the sun were ripe and we ate all we could along the way.
When we got to the summit, the view was awesome. We could see many miles up and down the coast: both Cape Chaillon and Ryan's Point were within view. The red rock at the end of the river where we had camped stood out clearly. Lake Superior was a clear deep blue far out and became deep turquoise near the shore. Through the clear water we could see the big rocks scattered on the bottom. Farther out the surface of the water showed a complex and beautiful pattern made by the wind. We were at least a hundred and fifty feet above the trees. We ate lunch while taking it all in. We took in some more blueberries too.
After lunch we started down, retracing our zigzags with some minor problems in remembering where they were. Once back to the saddle, we resumed our azimuth down the draw to a small lake. We then followed the inlet of this lake to another and from the far side of that one it was a short bushwhack to another of those overgrown roads the topo said we should be able to find. Actually "road" , in these instances, is a misnomer: what we would really be finding was some minimal indications of where the road USED to be like a line of young evergreens all the same size, an occasional rise that had been bulldozed, remnants of culverts etc.
Anyway, when we found the "road" we followed it looking for signs of human activity back in the lumbering era. All we found in this case was a single enamel pot. The remains of this road did not provide any good places to camp as it circled a lake so we continued to follow it toward a place the map showed as a rectangular open area, as if there was a camp, decking area or gravel pit there at some time.
As it was late afternoon and we were moving into thicker forest, Chris decided to trade his sunglasses for safety glasses. Sometimes multitasking is not a good thing and this turned out to be one of those times. As he removed his sunglasses he continued to walk and encountered a branch right at eye level, scratching the cornea rather badly. As we were not far from the hypothetically clear area, he tied a bandana over his eye to reduce the discomfort and we hiked on to see what it would offer in the way of a campsite. The bandana gave him a rather roguish appearance reminiscent of a pirate.
The rectangle on the map turned out to be an excavated area that was probably a source of gravel but may have been other things too, as it was more extensive than the usual gravel pit. It was beginning to be re colonized by the forest and the many scrub trees and bushes would be easy to camp around. The soil was dusty though, and everything set in it got very dirty. We helped Chris get set up, put up our own tarps and found a tree for hanging our food.
The sun was ready to set as we cooked dinner. Over the meal we got out our maps to look at the distance we still had to cover. A corneal scratch may not seem like a serious injury, but eyes are important and infection is a possible complication. Besides the injury is painful and very distracting to hike with. The trip was planned to encompass two more days, but we decided that if we took the easiest and most direct route, another "road", we could be out the next day, and that became the plan.
Having decided the sightseeing was over, we were packed and on the trail relatively early in the morning. It was my day to be on point and since there was not much in the way of navigation, I switched into "git 'er done" mode. Even with appropriate breaks we made it back to Chris's truck on Gargantua Road by midday.
We rode down to the bay to pick up Michael's van. Chris decided he was OK to drive and headed out while we washed up in the lake and got into traveling clothes. We drove out to Hwy 17 and north to pick up the Neon. We then headed for the Sand River parking area where we were to meet Chris to go for a post trip meal.
All went as planned and we enjoyed the meal talking about our favorite topic: the trips that were yet to be...
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